Finding data about your community

Are you conducting a Community Assessment for planning? This article includes resources for finding existing information for your community. There is a wealth of data available about your community courtesy of federal websites, state publications and databases, and local contacts. 

The First Step in a Community Assessment

The first step in conducting a community assessment is to gather information that already exists about your service area, be it a town, city or county. Finding a fact-based picture of your community can help you plan the additional elements of your assessment. It can help you more confidently determine what partners and population groups to involve in the assessment, who to invite to public forums, what questions to ask in focus groups and surveys, and what types of additional information you wish to pursue. 

Federal Census Data

The U.S. Census Bureau website is a gateway to a variety of tools to help you find information at the community level. The tools below are only a sampling, but they are good places to go to get a statistical picture of your service area:

  • Quick Facts is available for all U.S. counties and a limited number of communities. Beyond these geographies, there is access to information for other locations, but not in the Quick Facts format. As the name implies, this is the quickest way to get information about your community, but more in depth information is available through other Census tools.
  • American Fact Finder can be a fast way to get more facts from a variety of Census programs, like the American Community Survey, the Population Estimates Program, and the Economic Census. Educational attainment, poverty level, population diversity, per capita income, housing facts, and much more can be found easily at American Fact Finder. Besides the fast Community Facts feature, American Fact Finder also offers Guided and Advanced Search capabilities.
  • American Community Survey is an ongoing federal statistical survey that provides data for every year. The ACS provides 1-year, 3-year, and 5-year estimates. (Note that some survey questions are not asked every year for every geography.) It is the largest survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, aside from the decennial census, and provides extensive data. The ACS is a powerful dataset, but there can be a learning curve for novices, and it takes some practice to unleash that power.  For help in using the resource and the data available:
  • County Business Patterns is useful for studying economic activity of small geographic areas. It not only give you a picture of the business community (via zip code, county or metro/micro statistical geographies) in your service area, historical data can reveal trends and changes.
  • QWI Online tracks eight of the thirty workforce indicators collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. It can show job gains and losses in your service area for different economic sectors. QWI stands for Quarterly Workforce Indicators. Accessing past quarters can reveal changes and trends over a period of time. 

Economic Information

In addition to County Business Patterns and QWI Online, there are other federal and state resources that can help you collect economic data.

  • Bureau of Economic Analysis Bearfacts provides per capita income by county, ranking it within the state, and comparing it to state and national averages.
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Beta Labs provides state and county maps that allow you to view changes in employment by industry over a twelve-month period. 
  • USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service can be useful for rural libraries serving agricultural districts. Select your state in the drop down box to access county estimates concerning crops and livestock. The state page will also let you search for statistics, and provides contact information for the state field office responsible for reporting stats to the USDA.  

State departments of commerce, labor, mining, and agriculture can be good resources for local economic data, as are employment security programs (unemployment) and workforce development agencies.  

Health Information

States report health statistics to the federal government, which aggregates the data to create bigger pictures of the nation’s health. To find health statistics and information for your county, contact your state’s health department, or local county health department. Also check with your state documents or clearinghouse program—usually housed at the state library—to see what publications and online resources may be available to help you find health statistics by county.

Education Information

As with health information, your best bet to find local statistics on education should begin with state and local contacts—your state education department and local school districts in your service area. Also check with your state documents program to see what types of publications and online resources are available that provide district level data. Many states release district-by-district data (sometimes called school “report cards”) that provide information on student achievement, dropout rates, funding, and more. (Be sure and ask your state department or local school district the percent of children who qualify for the federal school lunch program in your service area. This can be a good indicator of the level of poverty in your community.)  

If you have colleges and/or universities in your service area, or vocational training institutions, ask them if they can provide statistics and information that will give you a picture of their student populations. Libraries at these institutions should also be able to point you in the right direction to find data.

  • ED.gov offers a contacts page that can connect you with other information providers. Click on your state, then click on “Organizations Offering Information and Services.” You’ll get a list of links to state agencies and organizations that could help you find local statistics on literacy, adult education, special needs education, and much more. 

Kids Count Data

The Anne E. Casey Foundation partners with federal and state agencies, and Kids Count grantees in the states and territories to provide state and county-level data on the health and well being of America’s children.  

  • Visit the Kids Count Data Center, click “Data by State” and then click on your state. At the state level page, you will be able to click on a number of categories (demographics, education, economic well-being, health, safety and risky behaviors, other indicators) that will let you drill down to county-level stats. Most important of all, the page will identify the state grantee that works with the Casey Foundation on gathering this important data. Contact the grantee to see what other types of statistics and resources are available. Grantees often have developed contacts and recruited speakers throughout their state to address children’s issues, and these people could be a resource for you during your community assessment.  

Ask a Librarian

Federal Depository Libraries  are a valuable resource in finding facts and statistics. Find a Regional Depository Library in your state (at the URL above) if you are having problems finding specific information about your service area. The librarians there can put you on the right path, let you know if particular data does not exist, and offer alternative data sets that may suit your needs. (Note: If your state participates in the Government Information Online: Ask A Librarian service, you can chat and e-mail with federal depository librarians. Visit http://www.govtinfo.org to find out more.) 

State Government Documents programs, usually through the state library, can provide information on publications and databases that can help with your fact-finding. Many state document programs are collecting searchable digitized versions of state publications and providing access through web portals. Simply typing the name of your city, town or county in the portal’s search box could provide you with publications that contain facts and information that you could have missed otherwise.  

IT in Your Community

Much of the information available on broadband access, IT infrastructure, cell phone penetration, and other technologies has been aggregated to the national or global scale. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “all 50 states have created either a task force, commission, or broadband project.” Visit the site to find out what your state has been doing. Even if your state has not established a state broadband office, information on a particular project will help you get in contact with officials who may be able to help you answer questions about the capacity of and plans for IT infrastructure in your community, or provide local contacts who may be able to give you some insight about your service area. 

The Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project has an abundance of data about technology trends on a national scale. Their reports and findings may also help you craft questions for a local survey and/or for focus groups. Some of the data is of particular interest to libraries. Recent research reports include:

Pew data can give you a baseline upon which to compare survey findings for your service area.

Library Edge Benchmark 4 states, "Libraries make strategic decisions based on community priorities for digital inclusion and innovation". An analysis of the data that already exists about your community can be a smart place to start.

 

- contributed by Bill Young, Oklahoma Department of Libraries